By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
For three seasons, the Washington Capitals had one of the NHL's most feared heavyweights on their side in Donald Brashear, who built a career based on his ability to pummel opponents with his fists.
But when Brashear became an unrestricted free agent in the summer, the Capitals decided to go the route of other teams in the salary cap era: ditch the old-school enforcer role and stick to a skill-based lineup.
"We want to be a tough team to play against, but you can do that with speed, physical play and relentlessness," General Manager George McPhee said. "There are probably five to 10 games a year where you can use an enforcer. The rest of the time you really don't need them."
In the four seasons since the NHL lockout, enforcers have gradually diminished across the league. Most teams insist that any player who serves as a physical force must also be able to play regular minutes and contribute in other ways. And given salary cap concerns, there is less money for players who are not multifaceted.
Leading the way are the Detroit Red Wings, who have had the lowest number of fighting majors of any team in the NHL for each of the past five seasons -- they were called for 12 in 2008-09 -- and have made the playoffs every year.
It may not be much of an adjustment for the Capitals to subscribe to Detroit's brand of all-for-one-and-one-for-all grit because they played without an enforcer for much of this past spring. When Brashear was suspended for six games during Washington's 14-game postseason run, young guns such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom proved they could stick up for themselves.
"It was nice having Donald with us because you know he always had your back," forward Brooks Laich said. "But we still have guys that will drop the gloves and a very potent power play that will prevent some teams from taking stupid penalties by itself."
In the four playoff contests in which Brashear appeared, he averaged just 3 minutes 32 seconds of ice time. And even with him in the lineup last year, the Capitals finished the regular season with the third-fewest major penalties of all teams (29).
"If we feel we need [an enforcer] then we'll call someone up from [minor league affiliate] Hershey or something," McPhee said, "but we'd like to make the playoffs and have four skilled lines that can play."
Brashear, who signed a two-year contract with the New York Rangers in July, and Montreal's Georges Laraque, another premier enforcer, each played about eight minutes per game last season. They will earn $1.4 million and $1.5 million respectively this season, but other fighters earn less.
Edmonton's Zack Stortini led the league with 25 fighting majors last season and will make $700,000. In Philadelphia, Daniel Carcillo and Riley Cote each finished with 22 fighting majors. Carcillo averaged 11:31 of ice time and will earn $938,000 in 2009-10, while Cote played just four minutes per game last season and will make $562,000.
But while teams across the league are accustomed to playing without an enforcer, the Capitals must prove they can, and will, rally to each other's aid.
"I think we've got a pretty close group of guys; everybody sticks up for each other," said John Erskine, who had 63 penalty minutes, including three fighting majors, last season. "If Ovie's in trouble or [Mike Green's] in trouble, all of the other guys on the ice will come to the rescue. I know if something happens I'm always ready to be there to stand up for my team and stand up for myself. I don't think you have to have that big guy so long as everybody sticks together."
"There are still plenty of tough guys here," Laich added. "Just because they don't fight that much doesn't mean they're afraid of it."